Harsha Vardhana Singh: the expert who traded on his chances

Harsha Vardhana Singh: the expert who traded on his chances
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First Published: Wed, Mar 14 2007. 02 19 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Mar 14 2007. 02 19 PM IST
The highest-ranking Indian at the World Trade Organization’s Geneva headquarters is Harsha Vardhana Singh, the 51-year-old deputy director-general, and he has strong rural roots. That seems only apt at a time when most countries are trying hard to wrap up negotiations that were on hold, but were revived in January in an effort to arrive at an agreement before the Bush administration loses its negotiating mandate from the US Congress in July. Agriculture is one of the issues that led to the hold-ups, although countries such as India now want to focus on others.
Singh knows a bit about farming. When he was growing up, his father, the late Markandey Singh, once lieutenant governor of Delhi, insisted he be packed off to the family’s village in Uttar Pradesh every year to spend some time with his grandparents. There, Singh would spend time in the fields; even today, he speaks fondly of growing sugar cane and sweet pea on the farm.
Singh, who almost didn’t become one of the four deputy director generals of WTO—“I sent my application in on the last day,” he says—could have a very good chance of becoming the director general of WTO one day. That would fit in well as an entry in the CV of a man whose career has been driven more by chance than anything else.
An avid basketball player, Singh says he got into Delhi’s St Stephen’s College “in the sports quota”, but an injury in his third year at the college put paid to his aspirations of becoming a sportsman. In 1977, he enrolled at the Delhi School of Economics and was determined to appear for the civil service examinations and join the government. That never happened, but DSE turned out to be important for another reason: he met his wife, Veena Jha, now the India programme co-ordinator at Unctad at the school. “I remember the first time I saw her walking down the stairs of the library. I felt like I had known her all my life,” recalls Singh. Jha persuaded Singh to apply for the Rhodes scholarship.
“I began my application with the words that though I was born and brought up in Delhi, my roots were rural,” says Singh. He won the scholarship and a trip to Oxford where he earned an M.Phil and a Ph.D in economics. Somewhere in between—on 7 August 1981—he married Jha amid high drama. “We eloped since our parents were opposed to the match,” laughs Singh.
After his stint at Oxford, Singh worked with the Bureau of Industrial Costs and Prices in New Delhi, and the International Labour Organization and Unctad in Geneva. It was Jha who chanced upon an advertisement for a job in the GATT secretariat (in those days WTO was still the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), and forced him to apply. He got the job and worked with the organization for 12 years. In 1997, he became the economic advisor to India’s just-created telecom regulator, Trai, and worked on tariffs. “Singh never got involved in the disputes between telecom companies,” says Pradip Baijal, former chairman, Trai. “Though he was knowledgeable in economics, he quickly acquired knowledge about the regulatory aspects of telecom.” Then he moved back to WTO, where, since 1 October 2005, he has been DDG.
At WTO, Singh has served in a variety of posts. He has been part of the economics and analysis wing of the organisation, and was among the first to serve in the organisation’s trade policy division where he authored the first trade policy reviews for Australia, Thailand, and Canada. And he played an important role in multi-lateral agreements related to anti-dumping, subsidies, and countervailing measures. Singh has also served as the chairman of three landmark dispute settlement panels at WTO: in the 2002 fight between Japan and the United State’s over the former’s alleged dumping of hot-rolled steel; the one between Brazil and Argentina over poultry; and the one between Canada and the US over softwood and lumber. Friends and associates claim the self-effacing Singh has a fine understanding of trade issues.
“He would be narrating an anecdote in a Bhojpuri accent one minute, and the very next, he would be discussing minute details of anti-dumping,” says Rajiv Kumar, director and chief executive, ICRIER, a Delhi-based economic think tank, who has known Singh since their days together in England as students.
The deeply-spiritual Singh is a follower of the late Baba Aghoreshwar Bhagwan Ram and a trustee in a Benaras-based ashram, to which he and Jha donate funds for the maintenance of 300 underprivileged students. The couple says that their two daughters (who study abroad) spend some time every year at the ashram teaching the children. The couple is also working with non governmental organisations to build schools in their ancestral villages (in UP and Bihar), and are talking to IT firms for providing entry-level jobs to students of these schools. These, and his loyalty to his roots, ensure that Singh shuttles between Geneva and Delhi.
Jha says that had Singh not joined WTO, he would have become either a writer or a politician. At DSE, Singh lets on, he briefly flirted with the idea of joining a political party. “But Veena made it clear that it was politics or her,” he says.
He chose her and may soon have one more reason to thank her for that.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by e-mail to interview@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Mar 14 2007. 02 19 PM IST
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